Wolastoq Lifeblood

    ‘It’s our lifeblood that holds us all together’

    Published Saturday June 26th, 2010


    When Terry Graff, curator and deputy director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, goes to work each day, he stops to take in the beauty of the St. John River.

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    Stephen MacGillivray

    The Beaverbrook Art Gallery exhibit called Wolastoq (Beautiful River): The St. John River Project is being set up for viewing at the gallery from June 27 to Sept. 6. Above, curator Terry Graff carries a St. John River landscape by artist John Warren Gray past the image called Getting Nowhere by Allan Saulis.

    The mighty river pours from its source – a small lake in Maine – stretching along the Canada-United States border. On and on, it flows through New Brunswick, dividing the capital city and flowing past the gallery, before pooling into the harbour of the largest city in the province – Saint John.

    Its waters are simultaneously tumultuous, powerful, serene and breathtaking, and this province was built along its banks.

    New Brunswick poet Alden Nowlan described it as “beautiful, as blue as steel” in his poem St. John River, and countless other artists have been inspired by its striking presence.

    This summer, the gallery wants people to take time to absorb the natural, historical masterpiece known as the St. John River.

    On Sunday, the gallery will open an exhibit called Wolastoq (Beautiful River): The St. John River Project.

    The exhibit runs until September and explores the meaning of the St. John River through the eyes of New Brunswick artists, many of whom created new work for the show. Molly Lamb Bobak, Romeo Savoie, Darren Emenau, Carol Taylor and Suzanne Hill are some of the artists who will have work on display.

    My work was not shown in the article…I am adding it to my website:

    Over the course of the exhibition, the gallery’s artist-in-residence team of Lance Belanger and Kitty Mykka will travel the St. John River and construct a series of works in response to ideas and connections that rise from their experience on the river.

    “When I was putting this exhibit together, I was seeing (the river) every day. It’s natural. The light changes it, you see stuff floating in it, it freezes in the winter. It’s a constant. It just makes sense. Why wouldn’t we do a river show?” Graff said.

    “We could have done a show 10 times larger.”

    The exhibit includes contemporary pieces created for the show and a sprinkling of historical pieces that are already part of the gallery’s permanent collection.

    The participating artists had no problem finding inspiration, Graff said.

    “Many of them have talked about how they either grew up by it, or the river was part of their life,” he said.

    The exhibit has strong undercurrents of First Nations-inspired artwork, such as a history piece by Mario Doucette depicting the First Nations legend of Malobiannah at Grand Falls – one of the oldest legends in New Brunswick.

    As Graff strolls through the rooms of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery where people are bustling to install pieces and prepare for the opening, he takes time to tell the First Nation stories that revolve around the river.

    The Maliseet people refer to themselves as the Wolastoqiyik, which means “of the beautiful river.”

    Rarely has a people so strongly identified with a body of water, as the Maliseet do with the Wolastoq, he said.

    “There are stories built into many of the pieces,” Graff said.

    “There are different approaches to the river. Some artists will look at a story or a personal meaning; others will look at the natural beauty of the river and try to capture it.”

    Last year, the oldest birchbark canoe in the world was repatriated to Canada from a university in Ireland. The Maliseet-made Grandfather Akwiten canoe will take up residence in the exhibit, as well as a replica that has been used on the St. John River and was donated by the Brooks family.

    Visitors to the exhibit must only take a step outside the gallery to see the river come alive.

    The gallery, like many other buildings in this city, sits on the shores of the St. John River.

    The river has proven to be a blessing and a curse for some living near its banks. Two years ago, the gallery experienced the unpredictable temper of the river when its banks flooded and water flowed toward the gallery’s basement, full of priceless pieces of art

    “It was quite an emergency, and many artists have taken that as inspiration,” Graff said.

    One of those inspired artists is David McKay. He created the piece Before the Flood. The colours he chose combine yellows, greens and stormy greys, describing the feeling homeowners along the river have when the ice goes out each spring.

    “My home property runs down to the shoreline of the St. John River at Fredericton. Every year, beginning around the first of March, feelings of anxiety arise as the reality of the spring freshet and the threat of flooding approach,” McKay said in his artist statement.

    Molly Demma, executive director of the St. John River Society, wants people to appreciate the historic significance of the river the society calls The Road to Canada.

    “The river was the main transportation route between upper and lower Canada, and Canada is formed as it is because of the St. John River being here,” Demma said.

    “It’s been a landscape and a background for settlement patterns. Canada has gone from a colony to a country up the St. John River.”

    Both Demma and Graff agree that visitors to the exhibit should take a moment to appreciate the river as the stitch that holds our cultures together.

    “To all of us, not only who live along the St. John River, but those who have the river in our hearts and our souls, it’s our lifeblood that holds us all together,” she said.

    “We want to remember it as we go through our lives.”

    On June 24, 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived at the mouth of the river. The day marked the Feast of St. John the Baptist in his homeland of France.

    Bells rang out Thursday from churches that dot the river, marking the day de Champlain changed the name to Fleuve Saint-Jean – the St. John River.

    But when de Champlain arrived, he neglected to consider that the river already had a name, a Maliseet name: Wolastoq, the beautiful river. The description carries on in the hearts of those who live along its majestic banks.

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